The Ghan Train - It's not about the journey, it's the getting there

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November 23rd 2015
Published: December 12th 2015
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Now I just love trains, I do. You can walk about on them and stretch your legs, there's usually a nice big window for you to watch the world go by and enjoy the scenery and someone else does all the driving, so no stress there. In addition, they are usually fast, getting you from A to B in speedy fashion and, sometimes, your fellow travellers can be interesting and fun. We've had some memorable train journeys - I particularly recall the Andean Explorer across the Altiplano in Peru and the wonderful Shinkansen trains we used around Japan. Even the train journeys we did in India bring back vivid memories, if not always for the right reasons. So, when it looked as though we wouldn't be able to get seats on the Ghan train when we were making our plans months beforehand, I had a bit of a sulk but then thought of all the money we would save.

It is incredibly expensive; from Adelaide to Alice Springs the three tier pricing ranged from $2500 down to $460 (that's about £1250 to £230, per person, one way!!). If you wanted to you could really push the boat out and have a private carriage for 'only' $3350 but, being on a budget, we opted for the cheap seats when they were finally released for sale about four months before we set off. I was so excited at the prospect; it would surely be a highlight of our adventure for me.

Speaking to Australians, it seems that train travel is an expensive mode of travel generally. There's not a lot of rail infrastructure in the country which surprised me as the usual things we Brits tended to do when we colonised places (apart from turning everyone into slaves) was provide essential facilities such as basic education and health care, and trains for the transportation of all the things we were plundering from the countries in question. Maybe we just used Australia as a place to get rid of our criminals rather than as a resource for goods? My history isn't good enough to guess ..... Whatever, the Ghan train apparently takes its name from the men who built the railway who were presumed to be (Af)ghans and they did a wonderful job with their camels, which they brought with them.

The train generally only runs once a week, from Adelaide to Darwin (via Alice Springs which was as far as we were going) and return, though our budget only allowed a one way trip. It takes 25 hours to get to Alice Springs (1559 kms) and another day to get to Darwin (48 hours and 2979 kms in total).

We had had the sense, thankfully, to call into Adelaide's main train station the day before to check on the platform number. Good job, because the Ghan departed from a different station altogether! We were almost caught up in the crowds of rock music fans who were swarming in to Adelaide to see AC/DC who were playing there that night. Anyhoo, there was a definite spring in my step as we got in the taxi to head for the train station the following morning. Once there we were greeted by a Ghan trolley man who took our cases to be weighed, checked in and labelled, just like at an airport. The Ghan train was on the platform. It is a uniformly grey colour, apart from the engine which is red, is capable of transporting vehicles as well as people and, at 968 metres, was approaching one kilometre in length! People struggled to find their carriage as everything was poorly signed, but ours was quite easy in the end as we were at the very back in cattle class. The gold and platinum people got their own beds and baths, and silver service in their restaurant. We got a recliner chair, Cafe Matilda and a shared shower! Nevertheless we seemed to be in the company of fellow savvy travellers who also couldn't bring themselves to spend thousands of pounds on a one day trip. There were three other couples of our age-ish (British, Dutch and Swiss), a single Australian middle-aged traveller, another single male whose window blinds wouldn't open properly (and he was doing the trip for the view!), a single woman from Leeds and an assortment of younger travellers from all around the world. I thought we might be in for some interesting conversation but they were all a bit boring and stuck to themselves or their computer screens. The only people up for a chat were the lady from Leeds and a young German backpacker, who had been working his way around the world for a couple of years. I still can't come to terms with how clean and smart backpackers seem to be these days. He was even wearing a spotless white tee-shirt (I had ditched mine within the first couple of weeks as being completely impractical)!

Our carriage conductor introduced himself then promptly went to bed; we didn't see him again until we were about to detrain in Alice Springs a whole day later. He told us there would be a short stop in Port Augusta to pick up more travellers and a longer stop in Marla in the early morning when we could get off to stretch our legs. At bang on noon the train left the station, quite slowly at first, in order to pick up momentum I thought. Slow was to become quite a theme, though .....

My eyes were glued to the passing countryside as we hadn't yet seen a kangaroo, which I had thought would be ten a penny. Initially, the landscape was flat agricultural land, with huge mountains of corn waiting to be transported. The roads often ran parallel to the single rail track. The stretch between Port Pirie to Port Augusta followed the coast and we passed a huge salt lake. There was a stretch of industrialised country due to lead mining. Thereafter the landscape became flat and scrubby with not much to see. We saw wild emus at about 7 pm and, finally, the occasional kangaroo. Whoopee! We had a lovely meal in Cafe Matilda about 8 pm and returned to our seats to gaze out of the window again. Nothing had changed. The landscape was still flat and scrubby with not much to see.

The train travelled very slowly. The train 'manager' must have been getting a few comments about it because he made a public announcement reporting that the train could only travel slowly in some places because of the condition of the track. He said that the reason for the many stops was to allow a change of driver. We stopped in sidings for what seemed like forever at times to allow other trains to pass on the single line track. However, when we set off again nothing had changed. The landscape was still flat and scrubby with not much to see.

When darkness fell there was even less to see or do. I had made the mistake of buying a souvenir map of the route so I could see at a glance just how little of the journey we had done and just how much more there was to do. I tried to read but couldn't concentrate, I tried to sleep but couldn't drop off, I harangued Steve for a while but that was unfair as he can, and did, sleep on moving transport, I strolled up and down the carriages just for something to do and eventually, after much huffing and puffing I resorted to looking out of the window. Nothing had changed. The landscape was still flat and scrubby with not much to see.

As we were approaching Manguri Sidings in the early hours of the morning bright lights appeared parallel to the train, seemingly trying to outrun it. Such excitement! Only me and the German backpacker were still awake and restless and he said, knowingly, having just spent several months working on a cattle ranch, that it was the farmer coming to get his post and if he wasn't on time the train wouldn't wait. I bowed to his superior knowledge but thought it odd that the farmer didn't just provide a drop box so he could collect his post at leisure in the morning like the rest of us. Anyway, the car hurtled along the side of the train tracks at great speed, the train stopped for what seemed an age and the car eventually retraced its route at a much more sedate pace. It turned out that, traditionally, passengers wanting to stay in Manguri/Coober Pedy must arrange transfer from the train to the town with a local resident and this town resident must have been running late! The train eventually set off again but nothing had changed. The landscape was still flat and scrubby with not much to see.

We ground to a complete stop at Marla. The timetable indicated we would stop there between 3.30 and 8.00 am. We were certainly there a long time but nowhere near that long; I think the Slow Train to Alice was running way behind schedule by then. It was pitch black outside so there was nothing to see but we ventured off the train as dawn broke. It turned out that the people in the posh seats at the front of the train were having an outdoor daybreak breakfast with wood fires, space heaters and a marquee; those of us in the cheap seats got nothing but a long delay in a never-ending journey. We eventually took to our seats again and now we could look out of the windows once more in daylight. Apart from the bloated carcasses and bleached bones of animals killed by the Ghan on its journeys and the wrecks of cars abandoned to rot by the locals, nothing had changed. The landscape was still flat and scrubby with not much to see.

Slowly, slowly the hours passed. My initial jokey question to Steve of 'Are we nearly there yet?' became a constant mantra. I was counting down the 24 hours of our journey and, at about Hour 22, Steve summoned the courage to tell me that we had passed through a time zone in the middle of the night and the journey was, in fact, going to be 26.5 hours long. You can imagine my response! The British couple near us were becoming increasingly tetchy with each other, the German backpacker took himself off for a shower, the initially sophisticated and elegant Swiss couple behind us looked grey, wan and somewhat shell-shocked but the Dutch couple were wearing it well. The train manager must have been used to travellers becoming fractious by this point in the journey. He started to make more public announcements in an attempt to chivvy us along and lighten our spirits. Just before Impadna he urged us all to look at the full size image of the Iron Man, not Tony Stark but a tribute to the lost railway workers. It was, in fact, only about a metre high - blink and you'd miss it. A little further along we were invited to look down on the River Finke as we crossed a bridge over it. It was, sadly, completely dry and the sandy riverbed was no different from the flat scrubby landscape we had previously passed through. I didn't finke much of it ....

By the time we began our approach into Alice Springs I was able to reflect on the journey and hopefully put it in perspective. Would the experience have been better in the posh seats? Quite possibly but only in terms of the service rather than the journey; the length and the views would have been the same. Could I justify the additional expense that would involve? Absolutely not. Would I rate it as an iconic train journey? Sadly, no. There was just not enough landscape variation or stimulus. Would I do it again? I'll just ask that pig flying by. How those travellers who were continuing to Darwin, like the German backpacker, coped I'll never know. The sad part is that it has jaundiced my love of trains, at least in the short-term. My disappointment was probably all the greater because I had looked forward to the journey so much and, in the end, it was all a bit of an anti-climax.


13th December 2015

Oh dear!
We'll definitely have to go on the Keighley Worth Valley Railway when you get back to restore your love of trains! Margaret x
14th December 2015

We certainly will! Funny thing is we were going to do much more train travel in our initial planning stages, but the few trains they have go nowhere near the towns so we dismissed them in favour of the buses! Have just had a much better bus experience than the last one so I hope that continues! Jx

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